Gary Schwitzer is Publisher
of HealthNewsReview.org. He’s a journalism professor at the
University of Minnesota, a member of the Association of Health Care
Journalists and, formerly, a 15-year television medical news reporter.
There’s probably never been as much high-quality health care journalism in the U.S. as there is
today, but, at the same time, there’s probably never been as much
schlock. We invite THCB readers to visit our
site – HealthNewsReview.org – a groundbreaking effort to provide
daily checkups of U.S health news coverage.
A team of more than two dozen
reviewers from across the U.S. – organized and funded by the Foundation
for Informed Medical Decision Making – regularly reviews health care news
stories reported by about 60 major news organizations. The reviewers
have different backgrounds – journalism, public health, medicine,
health services research – but they apply the same 10 standardized
criteria in their reviews of stories. (See “How We Rate Stories”)
After a little more than a
year of operation, and after reviewing 400 stories, our database allows
us to hold up a pretty clear mirror to news decision-makers about their
One clear area of failure: discussion of health care costs. At a time when health care spending
represents 16% of the GDP, the costs of ideas being discussed in news
stories are ignored in the vast majority of stories. Close behind
is the failure to quantify the size of the benefits and harms of treatments,
tests, products and procedures. Such news coverage creates almost a
“kid-in-the-candy-store” portrayal of health care – all new ideas
are amazing, harmless, and cost isn’t an issue.
When you think about how many
Americans may get most of their health care information from major news
organizations, this is a troubling picture that feeds the “worried
well,” the “pill for every ill” portion of the population, and
the cyberchondriacs with unrealistic expectations of their health care
system. Is it any wonder why we have a difficult time engaging
citizens in a meaningful discussion of health care reform?
Journalists have been overwhelmingly
receptive to our reviews. It is clear that many of them aren’t
getting this kind of guidance from editors in their newsrooms and they
welcome our independent, balanced reviews. Health care journalism
has taken a beating in the current economy of many news organizations,
where staff cutbacks sometimes result in the expectation that fewer
do more with less. Of all beats, of all topics, health care may
be the one that can least afford such cutbacks.
We welcome your readers’
visits to our site and their feedback. If we can help improve
health journalism and the flow of information to consumers, maybe we
can help improve the national discussion about health care.